Pilates is cruel. Here’s what happens when you only think you have core strength. And why we must learn to “zip it”!

My insides hurt. A few weeks ago I started going to a Pilates class (Cassandra’s Absolute Pilates) devoted to moves that will help us ride better. I also have a nagging hip and lower back issue I’ve been trying to resolve, and these Pilates exercises seem to be helping.

But yesterday’s class was more intense than usual. And today (and likely worsening tomorrow) I pay. For one thing, yesterday it was all high level riders. Except me. I was just a glutton for punishment with an exaggerated idea of my own core strength and the erroneous thought that I could actually keep up with these women. And I did, for the most part. But my guess is that they are all able to move today.

Why is Pilates in particular so good for our riding? What makes this kind of pain so necessary? The object of Pilates exercises is to build long, strong, flexible musculature that will help us hold our frame steady (“locked and loaded,” as Cassandra says), and make clear and deliberate cues that will help our horse understand what we are asking him to do as we move fluidly with our horses in a relaxed, but powerful way. (Think Zena, Woman Warrior. On Horseback.) While we all know we need to be strong to ride well, it is the kind of strength we develop that makes all the difference. It is strength without tightness — supple, loose, and powerful.

And between here and there, apparently, lies the undeniable pain of hard work.(Good news, Advil!)  OK, maybe not actual pain (although I’m not sure I can stand up right now without whimpering),but  just the extreme muscle soreness, way deep in your innards, that tells you that you’ve found some tiny little muscles in there that have never worked an honest day in their now miserable lives.

Finding, isolating, and working these little tiny muscles, many of which comprise the “pelvic floor” and some of the harder-to-reach muscles that live under and around the “big guns” of the quads, glutes and hamstrings that normally get all our attention in more conventional workouts, is apparently the name of this hideous but effective game.

Now, I’ve heard of some of these muscles before. The pelvic floor is loosely defined as the interconnected “hammock” of muscles that  supports our internal organs and (ahem) surrounds the openings of our personal parts.  I’ve had two babies and a hysterectomy and have endured the Kegel exercise explanation (and how neglecting this crucial exercise leads to unspeakable and annoying problems that only get worse as we age) more times than I’d care to count.

But here’s the real news I learned yesterday about that group of muscles known as the pelvic floor. When this web of muscles and ligaments is strengthened and trained to work in concert with the abs and lower back, we can significantly improve not only our riding, but also whatever structural imbalances we may have. For most of us at this time of life,  the muscles of our abs and lower back and hips have learned to compensate for any natural imbalances by staying tight in an effort to protect our hip joints and spine. Not only does this inhibit our ability to relax our hips when we ride, but it is often the source of increasing aches, pains, and tension in the hips and lower back that plague us in every area of our life.

It’s also kind of a chicken and egg thing. We have to be able to get these muscles to relax in order to strengthen them enough to correct our alignment; however, it is the problem with alignment that’s keeping them tight . So to target and work these key muscles, we must learn to find them and then teach them to hold correct alignment. When we strengthen these muscles with Pilates exercises, we teach them to work with the surrounding glutes and abs that will then help create and maintain better overall structural balance. The bonus here is that supple strength that makes us so much more effective in the saddle. I don’t know about you, but I’m in!

So how do we find those muscles? And then what?

The image Cassandra put in our heads yesterday was the best one I’ve ever heard. She described it as “pulling the sit bones together like the foot of a zipper,” then “slowly zipping up the muscles of your core from that base, moving straight up the midline of your body, all the way to your sternum, keeping your shoulders back and down (‘locked and loaded’) and neck relaxed.” Then she had us hold that “zipped-up core” while we did each of the Pilates exercises in that particular series. (Ow, it even hurts to write about it this morning!)

If you’re new to this idea, I’d advise that you practice “zipping up” your core and seeing  how long you can hold it, just sitting there, whenever you think about it. Then try doing it as you go about your normal daily activities. Trust me — ease your slacker core muscles into this. Or go buy yourself the BIG bottle of Advil and, while you’re at it, a little Tiger Balm. (and remember, no matter how good it may sound, Tiger Balm is not intended for internal use.)

 This, I think, is a great example of how our midlife horses propel us to find levels and types of fitness that we would otherwise never pursue — for beyond-riding benefits that will continue to pay off in every area of our life for years and maybe decades to come. What new fitness levels and motivations has your horse led you to? Chime in and tell us your stories about fitness you’ve found at the hooves of your midlife horses. Post a comment here, move it to our Facebook community, re-tweet your favorite exercise when you see this headline pop up on my Twitter feed, or share a video on our YouTube channel.

Happy Trails!


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